Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun
Written by Paul Lunde
“It is he who made the sun to be a shining glory, and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her, that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time).”
—Qur‘an 10:5 (English by Yusuf Ali)
The Hijri calendar
In 638 ce, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph, ‘Umar, recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, 632 ce, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird iii. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 bce. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, 284 ce. Although all were solar calendars, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 bce. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.
There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.
This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijra, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijra thus occurred on 1 Muharram of the year 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, 622 ce, on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation ah, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijra.”
Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.
The Gregorian calendar
The early Roman calendar was lunisolar, containing an average 355 days divided into 12 months. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 bce, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until 1582 ce.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christendom. The use of the epoch 1 ce dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th.
The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory xiii ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.
Converting years and Dates
The following equations convert roughly from Gregorian to hijri years and vice versa. However, the results can be slightly misleading: They tell you only the year in which the other calendar’s year begins. For example, 2018 Gregorian begins in Rabi’ II, the fourth month of hijri 1439, and it ends in that same month in hijri 1440.
Gregorian year =
[(32 x Hijri year) ÷ 33] + 622
Hijri year =
[(Gregorian year – 622) x 33] ÷ 32
Online calculators can be found by searching “Gregorian-hijri calendar calculator” or similar terms.
Ever since camels gradually fell into the service of people in the arid lands of Arabia, Africa and Asia about 4,000 years ago, they have evoked wonderment. Their domestication, late compared with other species, had a profound influence on the societies of these vast territories through the exchange of ideas and the interaction of languages as well as culture both intangible and material. They provided, for the first time, an effective means for long-distance overland travel for merchants and the seasonal migrations of tribes. By the coming of Islam in the seventh century ce, a complex network of trade and pilgrimage routes had developed that connected the far reaches of the known world.
The consequences were as significant then as those experienced more recently with the advent of the telegraph, the internal combustion engine and, most recently, the Internet.
There are two domesticated camel species, and they can be identified with ease. The one-humped species numbers some 27 million worldwide, making it by far the most populous. It has also the greatest variety of breeds, numbering at least 90. Known as the dromedary (Camelus dromedarius), it inhabits the hot desert lands of the Arabian Peninsula, Levant, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. The two-humped species, the Bactrian (Camelus bactrianus), numbers around three million. It populates the colder deserts and steppes of Central Asia with 14 recognized breeds.
The wild predecessors of both the dromedary and the Bactrian camels are extinct. Archeologists and geneticists are now using ever-more-sophisticated technologies to unpick often scant and elusive evidence of the story of its evolutionary migration, domestication and ancestral species extinctions. Today the only surviving wild species of camel is the two-humped Camelus ferus, whose critically endangered population of about 1,000 lives mainly in the Gobi Desert.
Studies of all three species continue to reveal wonders of adaptation, characteristics and potential. Wild camels, for example, can drink slush with more salt in it than seawater. (They also appear to have been unaffected by decades of nuclear tests conducted in their now-protected habitat.) Milk from camels contains an insulin-like molecule, and it is replete with antibodies and enzymes. It lowers cholesterol in humans, and it can be consumed by people with allergies to cow’s milk. Studies are currently examining camel-milk immunoglobulins for cancer-fighting potential.
The camel’s environmental adaptations include blood-temperature range not unlike that of reptiles, and this helps camels endure extreme temperatures. In addition, as dehydration thickens a camel’s blood, its red cells elongate, which enables them to flow continuously. To help the camel hold water, the cells can expand to more than three times their original volume—far more than those of any other mammal. (This is what allows a camel to drink up to 120 liters in 10 minutes—more capacity than the fuel tank of a large utility vehicle, and not much more time in “refueling.”) As for its range capabilities, a watered camel can travel, with time for grazing, up to a week or more without water, and it can cover more than 600 kilometers.
The rider’s experience is also unique. Explorer and writer Eldon Rutter traveled on camelback in western and northern Arabia in 1926. During hot months, desert travel was often best during the cooler hours of darkness, and Rutter describes the mesmerizing experience with the patient camels pacing forward until dawn. “It seems to the rider borne at such a height aloft, that he is silently gliding or swimming over a yielding unstable surface,” he wrote in his acclaimed book, The Holy Cities of Arabia.
In contrast, much other Western literature has stereotyped dromedaries as either whimsical or aggressive and ill-tempered, whereas anyone who has come to know and work with them invariably regards them as intelligent, sociable and gentle.
These characteristics and qualities of the dromedary have been deeply known in Arab lands for thousands of years, where camels have been a major motif in Arabic poetry, stories, vocabulary, metaphors, proverbs and humor. Camels literally enabled the transmission of an oral tradition. Traditional poems often include a description and elaborate panegyric that describes the fine mount that brings the poet or storyteller to audiences far and wide.
Today the dromedary is increasingly celebrated throughout the region for this cultural legacy, and for providing such a rich, productive and symbiotic relationship with its herders, breeders and keepers.
Globally, the camel population today accounts for fewer than one percent of domes- ticated herbivores. (Cows and cattle number two billion.) It is in the arid lands of Africa—and particularly in the Horn of Africa—that camel populations are highest and rising, as they are bred and tended as valuable, sustainable sources of food and materials: Estimates cite as many as 20 million, or roughly 80 percent of the dromedary population worldwide. The Arabian Peninsula has a dromedary population of around 1.5 million, and scientists in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are spearheading a growing field of research.
With its adaptability highly suited to face today’s emerging challenges of climate change, says Bernard Faye, a camel expert with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, camels “represent a fabulous biological model for scientists from different disciplines.” He argues that the camel’s place in the world deserves to be re-evaluated in light of trends and potential, including the qualities of their milk and meat, as well the promise of new derivative products. Little wonder, Faye contends, that no other domesticated animal has offered humans so much utility, pleasure and value.